THE floodlights were starting to shine brightly through the dark cloud, the temperature dropped, the wind was whipping rubbish around the Stadium of Light. André Villas-Boas put his jacket on. A storm was brewing.
It never came, or at least not until a brief but pretty violent outburst long after the final whistle.
It was similar on the field. All the elements were in place for Sunderland to show some fight after a disappointing start to the season. Four games, one goal, two points, a cup exit. Oh, and a home derby defeat.
Allowed to start again by a badly-timed international break and transfer window which broke up the season before it got going, Sunderland had a new centre-forward to revitalise them and the shock of Asamoah Gyan’s departure to rile them. There were points to be proved, yet no case was put forward. The Black Cats simply rolled over and allowed their tummies to be tickled.
Achieved by other means, a 2-1 defeat at home to Chelsea could have been reasonably encouraging. The Blues always seem to win at this ground, so keeping their margin of victory to one was a start. For the first time this season a Sunderland striker – Ji Dong-Won – netted.
But it was Chelsea, not Sunderland, who kept things respectable. Gifted two goals by pathetic defending they barely broke sweat, safe in the knowledge their opponents were incapable of threatening them. The nearest Sunderland came to a spell of concerted pressure was on the back of Ji’s injury-time goal and lasted about 90 seconds.
Five games into the season is early to be talking about crises, but Sunderland are in a mess. That was made perfectly clear before the match. A couple of hours before kick-off, it was confirmed Gyan had joined Al-Ain of the United Arab Emirates on loan. He will not be back.
To lose a second club record signing in as many transfer windows was a crushing blow. With home-grown England international Jordan Henderson sandwiching Gyan and Darren Bent’s departures, Sunderland’s 2011 transfer dealings are starting to look careless.
What made it disastrous was that 27 hours earlier manager Steve Bruce told the world Gyan was staying. All the windows were shut, it seemed, yet the Ghanaian found a little skylight to wriggle through.
Those Sunderland fans at the game did not seem overly put out at being misled. With the triumvirate of Niall Quinn, Ellis Short and David Miliband in attendance, the subject never came up from the terraces.
There were a handful of boos and calls for Bruce’s head at the end of each half but in the main, the fans were supportive, latching onto any glimmer of a half-chance to crank up the volume in encouragement.
Like the remaining strikers, they had extra slack to pick up with 12,000 empty seats. If that is the best Sunderland can do for a Saturday three o’clock kick-off against Chelsea, Quinn must dread the gate when Wimbledon tribute act Stoke City bring their sorry excuse for football on Great North Run Sunday.
Quinn’s business plan was that if Short pumped in the money, he would find a good manager and the crowds would flock in. Three years on, the Texan is still waiting. No wonder the big transfer fees this year have come into the Stadium of Light, not out.
Watching the Black Cats at home has been a miserable experience since Christmas, their only win over a feeble Wigan Athletic. It may be a new season, but the pattern remains. Had the players shown some fight at the weekend, the stay-aways might be inclined to dig a little deeper into their pockets. Chelsea’s goals epitomised Sunderland’s game. The first started with a poor Wes Brown header Lee Cattermole tried to recover with a wild swing at Nicolas Anelka.
Juan Mata dinked the free-kick onto the post and despite a couple of opportunities, the ball was never cleared. Daniel Sturridge played it deep to John Terry. His shot was blocked, but only back to him. The follow-up went in off Phil Bardsley.
Sunderland’s defence caught out by a straight ball, Sturridge’s goal was audacious but the execution was far from clean. There was something pathetic about watching Brown chase a backheel feebly dribbling into the goalmouth.
The hosts had started more positively, but blew their chance to make something of it. Twelve minutes into a debut he had just two training sessions to prepare for, Nicklas Bendtner (pictured left) was perhaps not ready for the Sebastian Larsson cross he glanced wide, but it was a great opportunity.
Lacking supply and support, the lone targetman looked as if he had been coated in teflon. His assist for Ji’s goal was a failed attempt to control the ball.
Last season Stoke were on Wearside for a game Sunderland desperately needed to win after derby disappointment. For all the comings and goings since, not enough has changed.